Unlike the Commish, who was revealed to have this fear (the NFL and Goodell both disputed the assertion) in a recent profile in ESPN The Magazine, there is nothing figurative about my bad dream. It attacks my sleep periodically, usually in the summer rather than during football season, as if my subconscious is reminding me just how much the NFL means to me.
The doomed player in my nightmare isn't one of my beloved Cincinnati Bengals. He wears a generic dark jersey that could be any team's uniform. He is catching a pass, so he's probably a wide receiver, though because I can never make out his number I suppose he could be a tight end or a running back. He jumps for a high throw, and as he comes down he is blasted on either side. One defender hits him high, one defender hits him low.
And then he's literally ripped in half by the force of the hits. Right after this point, I always wake with a start, bile rising in my esophagus.
I relate this gruesome glimpse into my subconscious because I know precisely when the dreams began. It was eight years ago, when a professional player — a former NFL defensive lineman — suffered a fatal spine injury on the field.
His name was Al Lucas and he played defensive tackle for the Arena Football League's Los Angeles Avengers. He died on the hard carpet of the Staples Center eight years ago this week, on April 10, 2005. He was 26 years old. No, he wasn't torn asunder by opponents. Instead, a relatively unremarkable collision took his life. Nothing about it was unique to arena football and its roller derby–esque format. It was the kind of routine collision that happens thousands upon thousands of times at every level of the game across the country, from spring practice to summer hell week to autumn glory.
And that scared me most of all.
Footage of Lucas's death does not exist on the Internet. NBC Sports, which held the AFL television rights, had its cameras elsewhere that Sunday afternoon, leaving the visual record of the game in the hands of a couple Fox Sports West cameramen shooting from the end zone. A friend of mine who works for HLN found additional video in the Turner digital vault, a contemporary report on the incident filed from the Fox affiliate in Lucas's hometown of Macon, Georgia. When he showed me the tape, I steeled myself for an image as graphic as my nightmare.
But it happens too quickly, lost in a sea of bodies, for me to realize that I am watching a man die.
The Avengers were hosting the New York Dragons that Sunday afternoon. Lucas played special teams in addition to defensive line, so there he was after a first-quarter L.A. touchdown, hauling his 300 pounds downfield on kickoff coverage. Less than five minutes had run off the clock, and many fans were still finding their seats as the play unfolded.
In the video, Dragons kick returner Corey Johnson heads up the left side, with teammate Mike Horacek directly in front of him, running interference. Lucas, wearing no. 76, ducks low to get past a blocker and collides with both Horacek and Johnson at about the 15-yard line, well clear of the Arena Football League's sponsored dasher boards.
Johnson's knee and upper thigh smash into Lucas's head at precisely the wrong angle. It certainly appears to be a harmless encounter. "I didn't see or hear anything that was different than what I've seen a million times," Avengers coach Ed Hodgkiss said at a press conference the next day.
But Horacek knew something was wrong. On the video he lands heavily facing upfield, then whips his head around as though he heard Lucas cry out, or worse. Johnson was too stunned to notice Lucas, the swirl of the hit and the crowd creating a white noise that blotted his senses. "The impact was just … unbelievable," Johnson says today, letting out a big sigh. "I was upended, I felt this heavy direct blow, and I was pretty shook up, and...